It was a few years ago that I spoke with the legendary Jules Feiffer in regard to the 50th anniversary of The Phantom Tollbooth, which he illustrated from Norton Juster’s story. His new book, Kill My Mother, has just been released. I’m sure I’ll review that, but I thought its release was a good opportunity for me to make available my full interview with Feiffer for the first time.
J7: At what point did you begin to drift into the idea that you wanted to do work for children?
JF: At the time of The Phantom Tollbooth, I never envisioned having children. I didn’t want children, I was opposed to having children, didn’t think I was very good with children. My parents weren’t very good with me. They did their best, but it was not much of a best. I thought I would be no better. Why should I be?
But after Katy, in my second marriage to Jenny, I started fooling around with a book called I Lost My Bear, which was the first picture book I wrote. It was about my daughter Hallie when she was about 3 or 4, wandering around the house, being unable to concentrate. It was essentially an idea I had that came out of watching her and I saw how she couldn’t fulfill a complete one task or one job, that she’d go from one thing to another thing to another thing to another thing, and it occurred to me that one of the big differences between grown ups and kids is that grown ups have assimilated over the years a sense of — well, they have a beginning and a middle and an end to what they do. Kids don’t have that at all, and I thought that was worth experimenting with in a book, so I did this dummy of I Lost My Bear and that was the first picture book.
Before that, I wrote The Man In The Ceiling, which was a chapter book, and that’s what really got me into the business. I wrote it because a friend of mine, a wonderful illustrator named Edward Sorel, had suggested to me that I write a picture book for him and then we had a falling out over what the story would be and I got very angry with him and said okay, you write you’re picture book, I’ll write mine, and mine will be better than yours. That was what started this.
I started to think in terms of what the subject would be and as so often happens with your first books, it was autobiographical, and it was about a boy cartoonist and it became The Man in the Ceiling and went from picture book to chapter book into a full fledged novel.
J7: That seems like an easy transition because I think of you as someone who has rich themes. How did that translate to simpler children’s works?
JF:It seems to me that if there’s a form that I loved as a kid, whether it’s comic strips or movies or children’s books – or for that matter, plays – I seem to have incorporated part of the process of how to do it virtually from birth. When I was reading my early comic strips in newspapers and comic books, I was reading them as a fan, but I was also reading them as a scholar of the form without even realizing it. I was studying how you did this. How do you tell the story this way? How do you build suspense? How do you use angle shots? I was thinking all of these things and analyzing it as I read and loved the work. I would go over it and over it and over it, again studying it. I’ve found, as an adult, a surprisingly natural and organic transition going from one form to another. Americans have never been comfortable with people shifting gears and changing careers, but they do it in other countries all the time. We somehow are generally suspicious of it and even hostile to it and want people when they pick something to stay that way and live and die that way and screw it, but you don’t find that in Europe and you don’t find that in other cultures, it’s very American. I’ve never gone along with that. If something interested me, I fiddled with it. If it turned out I could do it, I did it, if it turned out I couldn’t, I gave it up.
J7: Because of your Village Voice work, I think of you as so far from the mainstream middle america – in your outlook, in the presentation of your work for grown ups.
JF: When I began at the Voice, it was 10 years before there was a counter culture.
Kids at their best are also not mainstream middle America. Kids at their best are suspicious of authority, want to have their own way, are in an underground struggle with the parents about values and identity and one thing or another, none of which is mainstream. Mainstream occurs after that battle is over, after the kid inside the kid has surrendered and become a grown-up, and becomes a stable, member of society, meaning that you have joined the forces of darkness.
J7: You tap into that as an adult and revisit that.
JF: I’ve found it not at all a transition in terms of values. I just had to treat the subject matter and the voice I use in dealing with the subject matter differently because I was now talking to kids, so I had to find a voice accessible to kids, and in that my experience, which was by then 20 years of so, as a playwright was very helpful, because in a sense the narration became dialogue. I found a character to speak the story – to tell the story – and with more innocence than my adult work would have, and went at it that way.
J7: Were there any challenges in the transition for you?
JF: Not in the transition, but in the work itself. Every single book has challenges, every single book defeats. Every book that I’ve written the text of, when it comes time to illustrate it, I’ve realized that I’m unqualified to do it. Somebody else should be doing this book, but I don’t want to split the royalties, so I figure out how I can maneuver myself into being the right person to draw this.
It’s endless challenges. What I love about the work is that you are, from beginning to end, in some kind of high wire act, and are endlessly falling off the high wire and falling on your ass, but nobody is around to see it except for me.
J7: I think you’ve done nine books before working with your daughter. What brought on the collaboration?
JF: As with most things, it was purely accident. Kate wrote a book called Double Pink, which somebody else illustrated – she entered the field and I thought it was wonderful and then she showed me the script for Henry the Dog With No Tail, and Henry is a real dog, her dog, and a dog that I loved from the time that they got him, I said ‘I have to illustrate this book’ and I did. And then in terms of Which Puppy, which I turned down twice, the deadline was so stringent. It had to be done by the end of the month of January, although the book wasn’t sold until the beginning of January, so that it could be published in the first 100 days of the Obama administration, because it was about the Obamas selecting a puppy. Everybody else turned it down, so I loved the story, I had no intention of illustrating but I couldn’t let my daughter down, so I did it, and it turned out at that time to be the best job of illustration I had done.
Then followed a new book, my second book with Norton Juster, the first time we worked together in 50 years. I did an even better job of illustration, so I’m finally learning how to do this stuff.
J7: Does the father-daughter relationship affect the illustrator-writer relationship?
JF: The illustrator-writer thing never even really happened. It’s just that we have fun with each other. I would do drawings, I would show them to her and she would love them. She was far less critical than I was of what I was doing, and from time to time I threw out something that she thought was terrific, because I didn’t think it was good enough. She was endlessly excited and supportive. It was funny because it was done up here on the Vineyard in the middle of winter. She lives here year-round and has a nice year-round house, which is very warm, and I live in a summer house, which is theoretically heated, but not much. So I was in my house with the oven on and dressed in every pair of clothes I had – sweaters and gloves, freezing cold, drinking lots of coffee, but it was great fun. I did a 32 page book in 21 days because it was too goddamned cold.
J7: What did you glean from working with Eisner and on comics concepts that you still use in children’s books?
JF: Eisner was instrumental in how I thought and how I learned to work – he was before I went to work for him one of my heroes. I studied him, those early Spirit stories that were in newspapers. It was an extraordinary opportunity and a great education for me, just being around his office, as a kid who really was incapable of doing anything right for a long period of time until I accidentally backed into writing The Spirit stories. It was the one thing I could do in the office. I couldn’t do any of the drawings, I just wasn’t able to do that kind of comic book illustration, but I could write it. That surprised him and it surprised me.
In addition, the comic strips in newspapers I read as a kid, and the comic books I read, became the background material, the research material, for every children’s book I now illustrate. I’ve got a huge library of reprinted works, and when I’m about to illustrate a new children’s book, whether by me or someone else, I go through my collection, I look to my masters, and see who I’m going to steal from this time.
It never looks like their work when I finally do it, but without studying what they’re doing and letting them chart the way my mind goes, the book wouldn’t come out looking the way that it did. Each one of the books looks somewhat different from one another because I let the text, whether by me or someone else, decide how the book should look.
J7: But it seems like your work – like the Village Voice strips, with its use of the fluid body language.
JF: Particularly when I was doing kids or dancers in the strips. When you do the grown-ups, at least the grown-ups I did, didn’t tend to use body language except to conceal how they were feeling. Kids reveal it all the time – and dancers do.
Everything is body language, but for me the job of the illustration is to get the emotion behind the character, and in a situation where the picture will help tell the story. What I loved about comics when I was learning about them as a kid was the combination of words and pictures – balloons and drawings – and when they integrated well, so well that you couldn’t tell one from the other, you didn’t think ‘this is a balloon with dialogue in it, this is a drawing’ but they all became one, that to me was the work of a brilliant cartoonist. That’s what the form should be. That’s what you saw in Calvin and Hobbs, that’s what you saw in Pogo, that’s what you saw in Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates, where you couldn’t separate the text from the drawing. So too with Eisner. Whether it’s the book I’ve written or a book that Kate or somebody else has written, that’s what my job is in doing a children’s book. One shouldn’t be aware – the story blends with the pictures.
J7: You have a long history with the graphic novel form.
JF: You go back to the beginning. Before you called them graphic novels, I did Monroe, which today would be called a graphic novella. I did the long book called Tantrum, which was called a novel in pictures and cartoons, back in the 70s, which came out just after Eisner’s A Contract With God, which he claimed was the first graphic novel, but of course it goes back to Milt Gross and She Done Him Wrong in the 1920s. It’s a very old form.
J7: It’s hit a more mainstream acceptance.
JF: Yes, but not mainstream enough to make any money for the creators.
J7: Do you have any interest in mining that territory for kids?
JF: It’s something that I’ve thought about getting into at some point or another and I may yet, but I don’t know from day to day or week to week what I’m going to be doing. I make it up as I go along.
J7: And you keep busy – it seems like you’ve never slowed down.
JF: I spent five years doing very little except working on my memoir, and that came out and seems to have exploded, so now I can get back to what I really do.
J7: Was that different – writing a memoir and being so straightforward?)
JF: Oh, yes. I’ve written things in prose and of course I’ve written 10 or 11 plays, but a play takes me three weeks to write a first draft and maybe another 3 weeks to do the revisions and get it on. This took five years, and learning how to write in the voice I did write and learning how to revise it and revise it. I must have gone through 7 revisions before I finished.
J7: So you had to settle into your own voice.
JF: It’s all an illusion, which is one of the things I love about it. That personal voice, including my own in the memoir, is both true, but also a put on, because I don’t really speak that well. If you just took my dialogue down in a phone call it wouldn’t be nearly as well constructed as that voice in the book, which sounds like me, but is a playwright who was constructing a voice made to sound like him, but it isn’t him. It’s a better version of him – a tighter, wittier, more interesting of how I ramble on, as I do.
Nothing I’ve ever done has been, except for the memoir, has been deliberately autobiographical or confessional. I always created the illusion that I was doing it about somebody else, and then sometimes years later, I would look at this work and say, ‘Oh my god, how personal can you get? This is terrible!’ not knowing that what I was putting on paper was my life. I always thought it was somebody else’s life. I conned myself over and over again.